The Problem


The last century witnessed an unprecedented explosion in world population, rising from approximately 1.6 billion people in 1900 to 6.8 billion people in 2010. Attributable in large part to decreasing mortality rates and the “green” agricultural revolution, this population increase has not been evenly divided geographically or socioeconomically. Overall growth in Asia, Africa, and Latin America has far outweighed that of Europe and North America, where current growth rates have leveled off or even begun to decrease. Further, population growth is becoming increasingly concentrated in urban areas over time. While in 1800 only 3% of the world’s population resided in cities, this percentage rose to 47% by the end of the twentieth century. The world’s population is predicted to rise to 8.9 billion by 2050, with the vast majority of that growth occurring in the megacities of the developing world. For the first time, the threshold has been crossed where the majority of the world’s population lives in urban rather than rural environments.

The practical implications of this growth are immense: While wealthy developed nations have been able to finance the necessary infrastructure to accept growing populations, extremely poor nations are rarely in a position to do so. Even still, economic opportunities in rural areas are extremely limited and people continue to flock to the slums of the megacities in search of higher wages and access to water, food, and energy supplies. Climate change further negatively affects the situation, with large sections of now arable land in the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia becoming water-deprived and agriculturally unproductive. The result will be massive unsustainable growth of impoverished sub-societies evolving in the shadows of expanding megacities.

Waste Dump: Extreme Poverty and Urban Waste Overflow

Urban slums face a wide range of difficult challenges due to their unique set of circumstances. The intersection of excessive population density with the lack of necessary infrastructure leads to extreme waste production that has nowhere to go but giant waste dumps at the fringes of the city limits. Impoverished people, looking to make a living, resort to scavenging in these sites for recyclable materials (metals, plastics, glass, etc.) that can be sold to wholesalers. For both the global environment and the scavengers who live and work in these sites, a number of serious problems currently exist that the em[POWER] model seeks to address.

Health Problems

In order to make scavenging easier, waste dump residents frequently burn the trash that enters the waste dump in order to eliminate the organic material from the co-mingled recyclables. Yet working amongst these burning piles of trash leads to respiratory infections, illness, loss of sense of smell, and frequent burns to hands and feet that can become further infected. Allowing organic material to sit and rot has its own negative health effects, leading to the spread of disease through pathogens. With no access to healthy sources of entertainment, many scavengers resort to drug use in order to escape the harshness of their environment. Nonprofit health clinics seeking to help residents in such communities generally lack electricity access to provide the refrigeration necessary to deliver antibiotics and other life-saving medications.

Environmental Challenges

Waste dumps, unlike landfills in the developed world, are frequently uncovered, exposing rotting organic material directly to the atmosphere. This practice leads to enormous uncaptured methane emissions’a greenhouse gas that contributes dramatically to climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) Second Assessment Report, conducted over a 100-year time period, a methane (CH4) molecule is 21 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere compared to a molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2). As a result, developing strategies to mitigate methane emissions from waste dump sites, especially in the unregulated landfills of the developing world, will be an extremely important component of fighting global climate change. Further, the escalating energy demands of enormous population centers are exerting undue pressures on electrical grids, resulting in rolling blackouts. Attempting to massively scale up fossil-fuel powered generation plants to meet these new energy demands would be catastrophic for climate change, let alone for world fuel prices. Yet methane is just the chemical term for natural gas’the most efficient fossil fuel on the planet. Capturing the methane from organic waste directly as fuel to supply growing energy needs will be one of the smartest possible approaches to combat climate change on both the waste dump emissions and new energy production fronts.

Lack of Energy Access

Blackouts in developing world megacities are common and frequent due to excessive demands on the grid, yet even worse problems face the individuals who live and work in the waste dumps themselves. Entirely cut off from the grid, the vast majority of waste dump shanty towns have no access to electricity, meaning that the basic amenities required for modern life such as lighting, fans, refrigeration, and access to telecommunications are out of reach for millions worldwide. Kerosene is frequently the only alternative for lighting under these circumstances, but it is costly and the fumes lead to health problems over time in the confines of shanty life. Without reliable access to electricity, these communities have virtually no chance for real advancement. em[POWER]’s model of distributed energy generation from organic waste will allow for the electrification of waste dump communities, leading to improved standards of living and opportunities for education, health, and economic advancement.

Education Problems

Due to the low wages afforded by scavenging, many children must work alongside their parents rather than attending school. Even many of those that could and would want to attend are prevented from going to school because the local schools are full and underequipped.

For the many communities and schools that lack access to electricity – an all-too-often scenario – additional hurdles severely hamper educational opportunities. Without electricity, schools in hot climates cannot run fans and computer access is not possible. Furthermore, without lighting at home, students do not have the option of reading and studying after sunset, meaning that their chance to gain a competitive education is seriously handicapped. While problems of school capacity could be solved by offering night classes, this is also not possible without electricity to provide lighting at night.

Lack of Economic Advancement

Waste dump scavenging is extremely low-margin work. Because scavengers generally operate independently of one another, they are not able to attain the efficiency and economies of scale available to large material recycling facilities in the developed world. Wages on the order of approximately $2 per day are standard, assuming reasonably good access to wholesale markets. These earnings place scavengers well below the poverty line, and the low skill level of their work relegates them to lives devoid of continuing education and advancement. Furthermore, by burning off the large organic content of waste dump waste, scavengers are destroying the economic value of this waste that could be used as a potential energy source for their own communities.

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